No movie exists in a vacuum. Whether reviled or heralded upon release, deemed significant or minor in the grand spectrum of a director’s work, films — or any other art, for that matter — take on new context as the years roll on. Ideas can ripen. Perspectives can age. What once was “bad” can, in the rearview mirror, look ahead of its time.
One of those movies is But I’m a Cheerleader, which took nearly 20 years to be appreciated on a critical level. Starring Natasha Lyonne as a bubbly cheerleader waking up to her own sexuality, Clea Duvall as her soon-to-be love interest, and RuPaul as a “reformed” ex-gay, the movie was ripped by critics in 1999. Today, it sits with a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes. Also today, it’s a featured film on the Criterion Channel. The disparity is obvious once you check it out.
But I’m a Cheerleader wasn’t the only thing those of us at Polygon watched this weekend. Below, we’ve collected our other favorite selections, so that you can watch them alongside us. Be sure to let us know in the comments what you enjoyed over the weekend, too.
But I’m a Cheerleader
For years, I’d let But I’m a Cheerleader collect dust in my backlog, partly due to its terrible reviews. What a mistake: Director Jamie Babbit’s rom-com about a teenage lesbian forced to live at a residential conversion therapy clinic is campy and sentimental and everything I needed this weekend. Critics at the time compared the movie to the works of John Waters, but its texture more resembles the smart, sappy, and scrappy style of The Adventures of Pete and Pete and 1990s DIY culture.
A queer love story set within the walls of a sexuality conversion center doesn’t sound like comedy fodder, but Babbit leverages the power of camp. Her film is a safe space, in which its villains are ineffectual and its sets fantastical, like a lucid dream in which the central couple are always in control. Love, in this world, warps reality in its favor. The walls of the home are painted in gaudy robin’s egg blue and Pepto-Bismol pink, suits are made of vinyl and beefy men wear daisy dukes. By the end, the film’s camp has consumed its entire world, converting it into a safer, better space for its couple to live, leaving its bigoted antagonists on the outs.
This optimism stood in stark contrast to the other entertainment I carved through this weekend, The Last of Us 2, in which two young women find love only to be shot, maimed, bludgeoned, and bitten by humans and zombie-like monsters. That game, despite (or maybe because of) its deep cynicism has received a Metacritic score of 95. But I’m a Cheerleader, in contrast, has a score of 39. This morning, I skimmed through some of the film’s reviews. At Slate, David Edelstein wrote at the time, “the point of view is so sniggeringly one-sided that the picture has no tension. But I’m a Cheerleader is lazy counterpropaganda—which is always a bore in a fiction film, even if you’re a cheerleader for the cause.” The review was titled, I shit you not, “Heterophobia.”
What garbage. And what a reminder that reviews, like art, are imperfect and themselves worth revisiting. With enough time and perspective, classics can become crap, and camp can become classic. —Chris Plante
But I’m a Cheerleader is streaming on Criterion Channel.
Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island, based on the 1977 TV series of the same name, is sitting at a whopping 8% on Rotten Tomatoes. While that is undoubtedly a fair assessment — the story is chock full of plot holes — I’d like to nominate Fantasy Island as the next cult classic “bad” movie.
Everything about Fantasy Island is bonkers. Five strangers head to a resort with the promise of fulfilling their greatest wish, but those wishes quickly turn nightmarish. I don’t want to detail any specifics, since part of the joy of Fantasy Island is predicting plot twists, but suffice it to say they’re all delightfully stupid. The movie also features some excellent campy performances, especially from Michael Peña, who stars as the resort’s mysterious host, plus Party Down’s Ryan Hansen and Space Force’s Jimmy O. Yang, who play brothers hoping for a weekend of partying. They seem like they’re having a ton of fun. —Emily Heller
Fantasy Island is available to rent on Amazon.
He Got Game
Stuck on a Spike Lee kick after Da 5 Bloods, I cued up this 1998 drama, which typically lands in the middle of the pack in ranked lists of the director’s filmography. What I discovered was top-5-Spike-Lee material. In his love letter to basketball, the lifelong Knicks fan stages a hard-hitting, father-son drama on the court of the American dream. Denzel Washington stars as Jake Shuttlesworth, who’s in prison for accidentally killing his wife. With a promise of a reduced sentence, Jake’s granted temporary release in order to convince his son, Jesus (Ray Allen), to attend the governor’s former college. Everyone wants a piece of Jesus, who’s poised to follow Jordan as one of the great players of his generation, even as he juggles the game with school and raising his kid sister. As he struggles to make the biggest decision of his life, and staves off family, friends, and talent counts determined to get their cut of his success, Jake re-enters his son’s life looking to reconnect and find a way out. The last thing in the world Jesus wants to do is talk to the man who killed his mother.
Lee shoots most of He Got Game around the Coney Island neighborhood of New York, but every second feels grand. The script has the notes of a Shakespearean tragedy. The clash between Jake, a walking powder keg in the hands of Washington, and Jesus, who comes to life in and out of the game thanks to Allen’s NBA-worthy skills, haunts both men. Lee’s recurring use of slo-mo turns basketball pick-me-up games or practice jump shots into the work of gods. Then there’s the soundtrack, epically sized with Aaron Copland orchestral cues and tracks from Public Enemy. The life flowing through the film left me thrilled, but also wondering why few filmmakers have been given the chance to do what Lee does. There are tons of Scorsese imitators, but few people creating cultural collages or delivering the black bravado of He Got Game. The current moment only makes the question more urgent: Why? —Matt Patches
He Got Game is streaming on HBO Max
Music and Lyrics
I have watched five Hugh Grant-led rom-coms in the span of a month. Music and Lyrics ranks about mid-tier, but it’s worth noting that even a mid-tier Hugh Grant rom-com is still a delight. (It’s also worth noting that Two Weeks Notice can rot in hell).
Music and Lyrics stars Hugh Grant as his usual dry rom-comsona, except this time he’s a washed up ‘80s pop star from a band called PoP! In order to salvage his career, he agrees to write a song for a teen sensation and teams up with ditzy, quirky Sophie (Drew Barrymore), a part-time plant waterer who happens to be a great lyricist. Obviously, they fall in love — with some genuinely sweet moments, and in the sort of relationship where it feels like both parties grow from one another — but what makes Music and Lyrics so memorable is the absolutely catchy music and lyrics. Try watching this without muttering “Pop! Goes My Heart” to yourself for days after. — Petrana Radulovic
They Might Be Giants
I’ve been a fan of the band They Might Be Giants since college, so the 1971 movie that gave them their name has been drifting around in the back of my awareness for a long time now. So we watched it with my father-in-law for Father’s Day. George C. Scott stars as a rich former judge who lost his mind when his wife died, and now believes he’s Sherlock Holmes, charging around 1970s New York City in search of his foe Moriarty. Joanne Woodward is the psychiatrist who’s supposed to commit him to an asylum so his scheming brother can have his money, but as soon as Scott learns her name — Dr. Watson, naturally — he pulls her into his latest case.
They Might Be Giants is occasionally a comedy, sometimes even slapstick, but more often, it’s a pretty tragic look at loss and madness, and all the ways outsiders cope with pain and confusion. This has to have been a pretty big inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, from the sentimental look at fantasy to the crowd of ragged but loveable New York down-and-outers, and it’s pretty ragged in places, but it’s surprisingly moving at the same time. —Tasha Robinson